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Turkey’s Options in Iraq

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The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers.  Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart.  As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere.  Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia.  However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.

As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds.  The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides.  The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty.  Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent).  Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki.  Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”

The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise.  Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose.  Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come.  It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state.  As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion.  Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth.  The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside.  Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare.  If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan.   Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence.  Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.

This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however.  As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics.  Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS.  The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story.  ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think.  ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn.  Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return.  Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens.  This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.

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Stunned Silence

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Update: Since writing this post last night, Erdogan has finally addressed the Mosul crisis publicly.  The context and content of his speech only reinforce my main points below.  It took him two days to speak publicly about the kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff but his speech lacked the depth and details you would expect at this point in the crisis.  He briefly reassured the public that every effort is being made to free the hostages, a statement that should have been made immediately after the kidnapping, then went on to slam the CHP for criticizing the response of AKP officials to the crisis.  He accused them of being allies of Assad and claimed that their criticism of the government would “provoke” ISIS.  Erdogan now only has one mode: blame and distract.  He and his government’s policies have failed and he is doing everything he can to avoid addressing the justified criticisms of the opposition.  Erdogan, his government, and Turkey are in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment, a situation of their own making.  Distraction may work for now, but if (God forbid) the hostages are harmed or killed it will be very difficult to shift the blame for such a blow to Turkey’s honor to a weak and divided opposition (which is what he is setting up to do).  Mosul, like Soma, is another sign of the slow decline of the power of Erdogan and the AKP both at home and abroad.

 

Erdogan is known for his fiery and frequent speeches.  Since last year’s protests, his conspiracy-laced pontifications have become nearly a daily occurrence.  However, the crisis in northern Iraq has literally left Erdogan dumbstruck.  Since ISIS stormed into Mosul, taking several dozen Turkish truck drivers hostage Tuesday and 49 Turks affiliated with the consulate hostage Wednesday, we have heard nary a peep from the Prime Minister.  Instead, Erdogan reached out to the United States government Thursday.  I am sure it is an understatement to say that he must have felt slighted to be connected with Vice President Biden and not President Obama.

The weaknesses of the AKP government in general and Erdogan in particular are being bared in quick succession.  Just as Soma revealed the shallow and inhumane nature of the AKP’s neo-liberal domestic policies, the crisis in Iraq is the consequence of Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy.  Though Turkey never directly supported ISIS and its activities, the Turkish government’s all but open boarder policy for anti-Assad militants allowed many foreign fighters to enter Syria and swell ISIS’s ranks.  ISIS was always open with its hostility toward Turkey, declaring Erdogan an apostate, despite Turkey acting as as rear base for their fighters.  The fact that ISIS’s recent hostility toward Turks and Turkey seems to have taken the Turkish government off guard demonstrates a frightening level of naivete on the part of officials.

The Iraq crisis is another event in the series of Turkish foreign policy breakdowns that began with the Arab spring.  The beginning of the Arab spring marked the height of Turkey’s influence in the region and their neo-Ottoman ambitions.  As Syria and then Egypt descended into political chaos, Turkish power became all but illusory.  Some pro-government news outlets continue to publish fantastical, Turko-centric visions for a “new” middle east.  However all but the most delusional in the Turkish government must see that the loss of stability in northern Iraq, a region that was key to Turkish trade with the region, puts Turkey in its weakest international position since the rise of the AKP.  The AKP will not be resurrecting the Ottoman Empire.  They will be lucky, and smart, to maintain their one solid relationship with a Middle Eastern neighbor, namely Iraqi Kurdistan (but that’s another blog post).

Erdogan’s stunned silence in response to this crisis speaks volumes.  Over the past year, he has been doing everything possible to stir up domestic crises, involving the Gulen movement, Gezi protesters, foreign journalists and many others, which he can then go about “solving” through ministerial purges, police crackdowns and repressive laws.  Erdogan didn’t even shy away from tackling the Soma disaster head on, though his approach left something to be desired to say the least.  Now, when Turkey faces a real threat with citizen’s lives on the line, he cannot even find the time to reassure the public that the government is working to resolve the crisis.  Though some AKP ministers have tried, Erdogan’s usual tactics are not sufficient to address this serious of a situation.  Mosul is a real test of the political meddle of Erdogan and the AKP and thus far they have been found wanting.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 13, 2014 at 4:02 am